Monday, February 8, 2016

Quit Recruiting all of Your Students! — #SAChat Final Thought

I discuss the oversaturation of today's #SAGrad job market

[Note: I was asked to publish this for the StudentAffairsCollective website; however, I went over the word limit by about 2,500 words and refused to shorten my piece for the sake of the heart of the discussion. So here is the entire piece in its entirety! And I must thank Kevin, Dustin, and Sabina with the SAC for motivating me to write about this topic! It's a doozy.]

On the tail-end of #SARecruits, I was asked to write a blog post elaborating on my final thought from the #SAChat conversation on January 21st. The topic of the chat was whether or not the #SAGrad job market is oversaturated.

[Note: It completely is. But I’ll get to that in a moment.]

This was actually the first #SAChat I had actively participated in nearly a year, since I decided that I would go somewhat radio-silent on higher education conversations during my job search. I’m known as a pot-stirrer and I didn’t want any of my stirring to harm my job search in any way.

So it was nice to return to the conversation, since I FINALLY landed my first full-time professional role in higher education! I am the Health Education & Promotion Specialist at UMass Boston! Go state schools!

In returning to the conversation on the day in which I chose, I wanted to amplify my frustrations with the current state of the post-graduate job search.

I am not happy with the way hiring happens in higher education. I think it is unnecessarily complicated, political, and it does not take into account the mental health of the candidates whatsoever. Granted, there are many elements that go into every search, and every search is different; yet, I have found one of my most frustrating aspects of the search—the oversaturation of graduate students in higher education.

As many folks know, I led the #SAGrad chat on the @SAGradMOD Twitter account in its first iteration, I have since passed the reins on to Ricky Meinke, who is CRUSHING IT. Yet, in this experience, I was able to learn so much about my fellow graduate students. I learned that many of us come from all over the world, that we are dedicated to our work, and that many were very unprepared for the job search.

And honestly, if you've followed along to any of the chats this or last year, one thing is real: many graduate students are terrified of the job search.

So, I figure the easiest way to write this post would be to talk on four key points that I would like to discuss on this matter—


1. Quit recruiting your students to join the field.
Look, this field isn’t for everyone.
We need to accept that.

Some of our students would flourish in this field.
Others—not so much.

Overwhelmingly, I found that most folks in the Twitter conversation that day agreed that we shouldn’t be ushering all of our students into the field of student affairs and/or higher education.

We also shouldn’t treat our field like some sort of secret society for only the elite to know about.

Striking a balance with this duality is important—especially for me, an optimistic cynic.
I would argue that student affairs is a somewhat complex field. Working with students is not cut and dry. We deal with a lot of different personalities, cultures, beliefs—sometimes within the same student. And managing conversations with some of those students takes a lot of understanding of how humans develop.

And then you lump in the realities of truly learning about the history of higher education, social justice, access and equity in regard to who actually gets to attend college, diversity, inclusion, neoliberalism of higher education, the erosion of many state systems to private interests, what leadership development looks like, how to manage helicopter parents—the list goes on.

Essentially, there’s a lot to learn to be an efficient professional in this field.

I would like to charge my colleagues with having a truly meaningful conversation with ANY student that is even considering this field for their profession. Especially if you have any reservations over whether that student would be a good fit for the field, make sure you are able to discuss with them their intentions and desires for their future.

Working in Student Affairs does mean being a college student
for life. It means taking what you learned as a college student
and turning that experience into knowledge to share with the
next generation of college students!
Make sure to confirm that this student is NOT just looking to stay in college forever. That’s a perception that I have had to confront countless times and it’s nothing short of annoying and gives our field a bad reputation.

I know many graduate students that went straight from undergrad and from there, straight into job searching for their first professional role. Whereas, I took a year off between undergrad and grad school, because I needed to grow up and learn some things about myself. And I’m so thankful that I did because when I returned for graduate school, I was focused and ready to go.

I’ve had this conversation with many of my students—I suggest that they either take a year off and travel, or join a service project organization, before taking on more schooling. Because graduate school is NOT like undergrad whatsoever. It’s hyper-focused, and if you aren’t prepared for that, you’re gonna get swept up with the tide.

But if a student REALLY wants to pursue the field, or graduate school in general, I make sure to be real with them about the mental health toll, the financial toll, and the personal toll that grad school takes on someone. Especially in a highly politicized field like higher education—where every move and every decision can and will be scrutinized, and often celebrated!

I try to be as realistic with the student as possible, and if they're still interested, I direct them to the programs that I hold in high-esteem and give them ALL of the information they need. And I assure them that I will support them the entire way if that's what they would like from me.

Anything it takes to help them become successful! So long as it is what THEY want.

Also, this field is not all warm and fuzzy—so quit telling students that it is!

Yes, we have a lot of leadership development exercises and icebreakers that are fun and we love to keep a good optimistic front about everything we do. And yes, comparatively, we do have fun jobs.
But not everything we do is rainbows and butterflies.

We NEED to be realistic about this stuff when recruiting the next generation of professionals. Make sure student understand that our hours are generally pretty terrible, that managing conflict after conflict can take a huge mental health toll on you, and that the politics of actually trying to get some projects done will leave you alone in your office crying over your lunch.

This is a challenging field, and we need to be clear that our students aren’t entering with the mentality that our lives are like being the fun RA all day every day.

It’s just not fair to them or fair to us.
It is reckless and dangerous.

2. If a graduate program can’t pay, shut it down!
To many, this would seem like a radical decision to make.
To many, this is an impossible idea.

And sure, it might be.
But I think it could truly solve some of the oversaturation issues that our field currently faces.

One quick solution is to dismantle any and all Student Affairs-related graduate programs that cannot ensure full-funding or tuition waivers for all of its committed students.
This is a seemingly easy way to make sure that our field isn’t putting more humans in THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS OF DEBT in hopes of obtaining an entry-level job that will pay them borderline poverty wages—in some cases finding folks STILL in need of a part-time job to cover their living expenses.

That’s the reality of our field.

I know TOO many student affairs professionals in this field with thousands of dollars in debt from their undergrad and graduate studies, working a full-time role in this field, while holding a part-time job just to stay afloat.

That’s disgusting; and it’s wrong.

People with Master's degrees SHOULD NOT have to live that way.

And eliminating unpaid internships would be a great step in the right direction.
But anytime I mention that, folks get so consumed in their own selfish needs and desires and budgetary concerns that they can’t comprehend the idea of not having an eager graduate student of which to exploit their free labor.

Working for experience is essentially useless because the person doing the work isn’t afforded basic human rights of being paid for their time enough to even eat a healthy meal before working. Unless they take out more loans to float them through their unpaid internships—which, again, perpetuates destructive class inequalities of forcing people into more debt for the sake of MAYBE getting a job down the road.

Plain and simple. Graduate students are people, too.
They deserve to be paid.

Burdening a graduate student with more debt and no payment for gaining experience is a human rights issue and a mental health issue. If a student cannot afford to pay for food or rent, there is a good chance the student will not function to their peak potential due to concerns of whether they’ll be able to eat or live each day.

This step of making sure we aren’t oversaturating the field ensures that we are getting professionals that are sharp, ready, and prepared because the programs that CAN provide funding for all of their graduate students will become more selective and the field as a whole will benefit from that.

I am a firm believer in quality over quantity.

Just because a program graduates 40 students each year doesn’t mean those students are prepared, or that the program properly equipped those students for the reality of the field.
In an ideal world, programs should admit no more than 20 students each year, and secure funding for 10-12 students.

This all might sound harsh, but honestly, a lot of graduate programs are very lukewarm—they’re surface level and stale.

I am shocked when I encounter a conversation with recent graduate students who haven’t consistently covered topics like privilege, access and equity, oppression of education, neoliberalism in education, etc. It makes me wonder what people are even learning!

I have spoken with MANY graduate students who resented their decision on a certain program because it improperly advertised its offerings to potential graduate student, and ultimately lacked critical analysis on numerous social issues. Instead, I found that the focus was solely on student development, which again, is a great thing, but it is NOT the ONLY thing.

There is SO MUCH MORE to what we do and what we deal with than JUST working with students. We need to explicitly expose our students to the reality of how institutional political factors contribute to the experience of being a professional in higher education. Otherwise, we are doing them a HUGE disservice.

Granted, I attended UMass Amherst for my graduate studies—a program known for its exclusivity and HARSH focus on the landscape of higher education—so I have been trained to look at literally everything with a critical lens and to not settle for anything less than challenging the status quo and the imbalances of power that plague our field.

Hence, why I write the way I write about these issues.

At UMass, I had the privilege of having a tuition waiver, being unionized, having a salary and health benefits during graduate school—which is EXACTLY why I am speaking out about the recklessness of programs not being able to provide such rights for all of their students. All graduate students deserve to live comfortably and not in fear of where their next meal might come.

I know that it will be nearly impossible to eradicate programs that cannot pay for all students, that doesn’t mean I can’t be mad that they still exist and put many human beings in too much debt for too little gain down the road. And folks can say that we don’t do what we do for the money, but you cannot avoid that you have bills to pay and you want to enjoy your life outside of work while you are on this earth.

3. The jobs just aren’t there.
I just finished a 14-month job search. It sucked.

During my job search, I realized that there just aren’t many jobs out there! Sure, my search was limited to the Greater Boston area and parts of New England. But we have more institutions in this area per capita than ANYWHERE else in the world. So if I was struggling just to find job postings, I figured others were worse for wear.

This realization did not just come from my experience, but from discussing with many colleagues who were also searching for a long time, or are STILL searching some two years after graduating from their graduate program.

And we can't go a day on the Student Affairs Facebook group without someone sharing their story of having been out of work for months or years! It's incredibly unfortunate.

I have even spoken with current graduate students who are currently interviewing for summer internships. The current ACUHO-I internship site lists around 440 available internships for the upcoming summer. And the ACUHO-I folks sent a tweet earlier last week that claimed that nearly 1,000 students applied for those 440 internships!


We have created this problem.

Sure, one can look at having so many people in the field as a good thing. Creating the next generation of professionals and all that. But if those people don't have access to the experiences they need and are not properly compensated so that they can live and function, then there is no need to celebrate this influx of graduate students because of them will just leave the field in a few years. Like many who have failed to secure a job have done.

From my 2014 NACA internship at Towson!
Summer internships are gold in this field, and well over HALF of the students seeking those specific internships might not get one. This is definitely a cause for some disenfranchisement when I talk with current grad students who are worried about how that oversaturation will translate into their job search.

One of the big factors impacting this oversaturation is that many folks—primarily in RD roles—make horizontal movements when taking on their next job. This impacts graduate students because they are fresh out of graduate school with only graduate experience to support their potential to be hired. Not a few years of experience like some making horizontal moves have.

Now, I not knocking those who make horizontal movements for the sake of taking a new job—I’m knocking the hierarchy of student affairs and higher education for not being very conducive to advancement.

Granted, I’m just a young whippersnapper—so, what do I know about the dangerous impacts of hierarchical structures?

Well, I’ve witnessed and discussed this issue with a number of my mid-level colleagues and the majority sentiment is that our field will quickly lose good people because of the lack of opportunities for upward mobility.

We aren’t just going to lose graduate students, or maintain or worsen our attrition rate of approximately three years as an educational profession, we are going to lose good professionals who love working with students everyday but feel there is no place for them to land because the opportunities do not exist.

It’s a sad state of affairs when good people in graduate school are ALREADY disenfranchised by a field in which the average tenure as a professional is 3-5 years.

So why spend so much time training, learning, doing mostly unpaid internships, and putting yourself in more debt if you’re just gonna leave the field in a few years?

It makes no sense to me.

4. Realistic expectations of the job search do not exist anymore.
Okay, I’ll try to wrap this one up a little faster than the previous sections because I’ve already covered a lot of what I would say in this section.

Every search is different.
There’s no denying that.

But for some reason there’s this idealistic vision that everyone should have a job lined up before graduating from graduate school and if you don’t, you life is going to come crumbling down.

That expectation is very unrealistic with today’s oversaturated market.

I’m sure there was a time when folks could roll up to TPE or OPE or any other job interview factory and expect a job in a few short weeks or a month or so. But today, that just isn’t the case.

Last year’s TPE had around 750 jobs available, with over 1100 people interviewing.
When these statistics were announced at the conference, people cheered.
People. Cheered.

I was ashamed. I was shocked.
Sure, that’s a lot of available jobs. But people were essentially cheering that SO MANY people, so many great individuals weren’t going to have jobs. And I personally only know a handful of folks that even landed jobs through TPE.

Again, we have created this problem.

In talking with my colleagues, the reality is that many graduate students aren’t getting jobs until the summer months, or the even until the fall begins. Current professionals and SAHE faculty need to prepare graduate students for this reality!

Only one person from my 16-person cohort had a job lined up by graduation.
And we were ALL badasses.

The reality is that we need to do a better job being honest with graduate students about saving money, about possibly finding part-time jobs for after graduation, about taking care of their mental health before their health insurance (if they even have health insurance) runs out.

My job search took a huge mental toll on me, and I constantly felt like a failure for not having a job when I saw my cohort colleagues eventually getting jobs, and I was just sitting at home painting all day. Alone. With nothing but my depression and anxiety to bring me down.

Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive partner, Katy Hamm, who was there for me during my entire search. I am eternally grateful for that. Katy went through a ridiculously long job search as well, and we will be working on another post together on how to approach and prepare for longer searches.

This knowledge of the reality of longer searches is imperative to improving the expectations of those graduate student hitting the job market.

So, please. We need to quit talking about the job search like any of us have any answers. Because the job search process is completely random, political, and good people STILL don’t have jobs.

You can tell folks, “Trust the process!" or “Be authentic!” or “Make sure your resume stands out!” or “You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you!” all you want. But you’re not offering any real advice with that. That is all empty rhetoric unless you give tangible and practical advice on application.

Mental health, more than anything, should be the top priority for any job searching graduate student. And then saving money. And then focus on all that other stuff that it takes to require obtaining the right job, like resumes, cover letters, interviewing experience, etc. Because if you aren’t taking care of yourself and your well-being, you will not be able to perform well as a candidate whatsoever.

But it seems like either no one wants to have this conversation, or they’re too afraid to face that our field is in serious trouble if we don’t do something about it. Once we start being honest and realistic about the issues that plague the current job market and the plight of the student affairs graduate student, that’s when our field will become stronger than ever.

Bo-lieve that.
#SAKliq love.

* * *

Ultimately, there are plenty of things that need to be fixed about this field. And sure, I may be a little harsh on the field, but I love doing this work.

I love working with students to show them that if a punk kid like me—someone who was told constantly that he would never amount to anything—can do something with my life, then I want to prove that anyone with the passion to do so can!

Hope you enjoyed reading this chaos and I would love to continue the dialogue on Facebook or Twitter! So reach out, tell me I’m wrong, and let’s chat some more!

Until next time, be well and stay curious!